Orthodox America

   St. Herman's Elder, Abbot Nazarius of Valaam

by Monk Nazarius

  "Rejoice in the Lord, O most blessed and most honorable Father Nazarius...

Let us re-echo these words of St. Herman in praise of Abbot Nazarius, for just as he was a vital source of spiritual energy and inspiration for St. Herman. so too is he a source of spiritual wealth for us. He is a model for the Orthodox people of this century through his "desert-dwelling" way of life and his examples of Christian virtues, of suffering and ascetic labors.

Father Nazarius was born in 1735 in the Tambov Province, in the village of Anosov in Russia.  In his youth he was noted for his piety, and when he was seventeen years old he entered Sarov Hermitage. in 1760 he was tonsured a monk and in 1776 he was ordained Hieromonk (priest-monk).

He strictly fulfilled his monastic rule and fed his soul by reading the Holy Scripture and the Writings of the Holy Fathers. Late in 1774 he became a recluse living in a cabin in the thick Sarov woods..

In 1782, Metropolitan Gabriel of St. Petersburg heard of the great ascetic and called Father Nazarius from Sarov to become Abbot of Valaam Monastery which at that time was in decline. Although he was an able and spiritual monk, he humbly declined the offer and begged his Abbot, Fr. Pachomius, to write on his behalf. The Abbot, not wanting to lose the ascetic, wrote to the Metropolitan that Fr. Nazarius was unfit for the position be- cause of his lack of spiritual knowledge and experience.  The Metropolitan, however, reading "between the lines" of the Abbot's letter, wrote back: "I have many of my own' 'wise men , send me your fool." So Father Nazarius traveled to St. Petersburg and, against his own will, was confirmed as Abbot of Valaam.

Once in Valaam, Fr. Nazarius introduced successfully the Sarov Rule. During his 20 years as abbot, the monastery was rebuilt and flourished. Not only did it grow outwardly, but inwardly (spiritually) as well. The whole Sarov tradition was installed with its strict rule and emphasis on Divine Services. Valaam became such a citadel of Orthodox spirituality that it was named the "Athos of the North." Some monks from Mt. Athos visited Valaam and marveled at the life there, preferring it even to that of the Holy Mountain.

With regard to the Divine Services, Abbot Nazarius taught the brethren to be attentive and to avoid distractions:

"Pay attention to the church reading and singing, and strive as much as possible not to let your mind grow idle.  If, in listening to the church singing and reading, you cannot understand them, then with reverence say to yourself the Prayer of the Name of Jesus, in this way: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.  Strive to put this prayer deeply into your soul and heart; say it with your mind and thought..."

Although Fr. Nazarius couldn’t write, he was a leading authority in helping to publish the Slavonic translation of the Philokalia, being. in contact with the disciples of Paisius Velichkovsky. Metropolitan Gabriel told the editors that "although they (the holy Elders of whom Nazarius was the first) do not know the Greek language, out of experience they know better than you the truths of the spiritual life and therefore understand more correctly the teaching contained in this book." The Philokalia was published in 1795 and became an essential part of the Valaam tradition. From Valaam St, Herman took the Philokalia with him to Alaska.

It was under Abbot Nazarius' rule that St. Herman, St Juvenal, Bishop Joasaph, and the other members of the American Mission, were sent to Alaska~ From an Orthodox point of view the mission was successful in that the Aleutian Indians accepted Orthodoxy freely and not by force. The whole missionary approach which St. Herman used, caused the Indians to concentrate more on the spirituality of Orthodoxy and not to be tied down with the administrative aspect of the Church. Like Abbot Nazarius, St. Herman also created an atmosphere which produced saintly men and women-perfect examples of these are St. Peter the Aleut and the righteous schema-monk Sergius (Yanovsky)..

Abbot Nazarius managed to create such an atmosphere through the "desert," the skete life, and even the coenobitic enclosure. His guidance and counsels directed many on the path of salvation. Many of these counsels were written down and form a valuable spiritual legacy of genuine Orthodox zeal and piety such as nurtured St. Herman and continues to inspire and instruct the Orthodox faithful both monastics and lay people, struggling on the path of salvation today.

How appropriate that the first chapter of  these counsels is entitled "On the Love of God,” for here indeed is the beginning and  summation of all spiritual life. And who among us cannot profit from some wise instruction on this subject at a time when already we see that "the love of many" has grown cold..

"If you love Christ God, then endure as He  endured, and do all that is pleasing to Him.  He taught and did. Unfailingly your love also  should be such as does good, endures, is disturbed by nothing present, and in every- thing ever thanks Him not with words and tongue, but with very deeds. You must love Him with heart, mind, with your whole soul, strength and mind."

What makes these counsels particularly  valuable is that they are spoken with the voice of experience as can be seen in the following letter written by Fr. Nazarius to a nun:

"I do not know about you, but as for myself, I feel that I am at fault before every one and am indebted to all; and how can one become angry at anyone after that? To love very much three or four persons-how very little; that is nothing!  It is better to love everyone in the world!  I have a loving simplicity; to all the gates of my heart are open. And even though there may be someone who is not happy with me, yet I am happy with him.”

 These counsels are of equal value for us today as they were during the time of St.            Herman.  Even the example of Abbot Nazarius' "desert" life-style can, and should, be an inspiration for us.  For many years he lived in Sarov (and for awhile in Valaam) as a recluse in a small cabin amid the forests which were filled with wild animals and presented many difficult situations. He suffered thirst, hunger, bitter cold, and in the summer-terrible heat. He spent his days in fasting, prayer and hard work, wearing nothing more than rags. He teaches:

"But it is not enough only to suffer. To suffer and do good: this is pleasing to God and profitable for us."

Truly he suffered and did good for others-giving spiritual counsel, praying, admonishing others in the faith.  it is thanks to his struggles that we have the Philokalia is, the Valaam heritage, and our Orthodoxy here in America, transplanted from Valaam by St. Herman who was one of Abbot Nazarius' disciples  It would seem that such a hard life would be unheard of in the t\4entieth century. And yet, if one reads the accounts of those in concentration camps in the USSR, one can see that a life under the difficult conditions similar to those experienced by Fr. Nazarius, does indeed exist. People thirst, they hunger, they shiver in the cold, they work bard, they wear rags for clothing-not as the desert-dwellers" in a monastery, but as slaves to the communist system because of their faith in Christ.

We Orthodox Christians need this experience of the "desert"; we need to suffer, to thirst, to hunger. Only then can we begin to fully realize the importance and benefit of Abbot Nazarius' example to our lives. And when the time does come for us to suffer in any way, let us not shrink away from it, but let us remember the voluntary sufferings of Fr. Nazarius and pray to him to help us also to endure. Let us lead an ascetic way of life, calling to mind Abbot Nazarius' teaching:

"And so, everyone should love God with faith and hope and strive to fulfill His works, traditions , and commands.  They are these:  This age is not rest and repose. but a battle warfare, a marketplace, trading, a school, a sea voyage.   For these reasons you must labor in asceticism, not become despondent, not be idle, but exercise yourself in the works of God."

And finally, let us thank God for giving us such a spiritual light as Abbot Nazarius, who was truly an example of self-abasement, total giving, ascetic labors and true Orthodox zeal.

(The above account was written by Monk Nazarius, tonsured this year on the day of Sts. Sergius and Herman of Valaam at the St. Herman of Alaska Monastery, Platina, CA.)